September 23, 2008
Is any man these days worth a poem? This was my initial internal question when friend Roel Hoang Manipon handed me a copy of John Iremil E. Teodoro’s latest collection of poetry. But admittedly, too, I was gleeful, and yes, downright titillated. Teodoro, after all, unabashedly titled his latest book “Kung ang Tula ay Pwedeng Pambili ng Lalaki.” Given that the title clearly winks at unsuspecting would-be-buyers, it is still admittedly a very clever title because it does invite instantaneous responses from its readers, responses that are more than enough to fuel an all-night discussion. Having come up initially with such a working title, one imagines the author setting to work at once and writing ten poems in one sitting.
To go by its predominantly purple and pink color for its cover along with a graphically altered image of a man, and bougainvillea petals stringed into a heart shape, one wonders if one could still mistake the book as one written by a woman. Well, I sense a resounding yes to that. But what may have given away the book as a collection of poems written by a gay person (I say “may” because others may argue the author to be an aging spinster woman writer gone wistful) would be the very idea put forth by the title: that of “buying” a guy.
At the onset, if we are to go for the title’s literal translation (“if a poem could buy a guy”) then the author runs the risk of displeasing some gays. Why buy men in the first place, the politically-correct gays among us would say, with the idea alone of paying for sex already off-putting to some gays who have never done it. And whatever happened to the idea of using one’s beauty solely (“ganda lang” or G.L.) to attract one’s man, others would likely chorus. This literal translation of the title could also unnecessarily brand Iloilo-based Teodoro as a gay guy who buys off his men.
On the one hand, isn’t Teodoro merely acknowledging how things are in this country? That “G.L.” is an illusion and gays do pay for sex in the country and if not in the form of cash, men are bought off with educational scholarships, townhouses, cars, jewelry, watches, shoes, cellphones, and even e-load? And that yes, he too, is not exempt from such a reality?
Yet if we opt for yet another translation: “if poems could be exchanged for a man,” anchored on the idea of bartered goods being exchanged only with goods of equivalent or equal value, then the “lalaki” (man) in the title is ennobled. In this case, the man becomes equal in value to a poem. The poems also become a kind of an offering as flowers are to an idol. The only other question such a proposition creates is the question now on the value of the poem itself: did the poems retain or lose its value when it became worthwhile enough to be exchanged for men?
By whatever translation we abide, the title itself still comes out as very gay and would make Teodoro’s book a welcome addition to the growing body of gay poetry in the country. Gay poetry’s legitimacy and acceptance as a literature in the country was largely helped by the Garcia/Remoto edited book “Ladlad.”
But as in all such cases, the readers’ best option then in determining how Teodoro would have his book title translated and/or even interpreted would be to first read through the poems.
Aptly opening the collection is the title poem in a sonnet form: “Kung ang tula ay pwedeng pambili / Ng ‘sang pogi at seksing lalaki / Ako ay susulat ng marami. / Araw-araw ako’y may bibilhin / Pipiliin ko ang masunurin, / ‘Yung mautusan sa isang tingin. / Syempre dapat ngipin n’ya’y kumpleto / Bibilangin ko talaga ito / Tulad ng sukat nitong soneto. / Upang kung ako’y kanyang nginitian / Ako ay magsusulat na naman / Ng mga tulang naggagandahan. / At muli, ako ay may pambili / Ng mga panibagong lalaki.” (If a poem could buy me / A cute and sexy guy / I would write many. / Everyday I would have something to buy / I would choose one who is obedient, / One who will take my orders with one look. / Of course, he has to have a full set of teeth / I will really count them / Like the measures of this sonnet. / So that when he smiles at me / I will write again / Of beautiful poems / And again I would have more poems with which to buy / New men.)
That the author has chosen to write this poem as a sort of a preface, and a fitting jump board for the sixty-four other poems grouped under six chapters already merits closer reading. Though, Teodoro may have written this tongue in cheek, still it revealed a lot about his own biases and predilection. Iloilo-based Teodoro, author of four other poetry books (“Hinabol nga Pagtuo: An Ethno-iconographic Representation of St. Augustine as a Visayan,” “Babaye: Mga Tulang Filipino, Hiligaynon at Kiniray-a,” “Maybato, Iloilo, Taft Avenue, Baguio, Puerto: Mga Tula,” Paruparo at Korales / Butterflies and Corals: A Collection of Palawan Poems In Filipino and English”) is a proud gay who writes in Kiniray-a, Ilonggo, and Filipino. And he has since developed his own brand of poetry seamlessly incorporating borrowed words in Kiniray-a and Ilonggo into his Filipino poems.
Poetry-steeped readers, at this point, may already be vigorously brandishing at my face the clause delineating the persona (for the non-literary, simply put, this is the one talking in the poem) from the author, but six poems further into the collection and one meets the author securely enfleshed in each persona, blossoming one poem after another as each poem explores his own musings on men, loving, and yes, his gayness.
In the title poem, the persona, who, textually, is a poet, made it clear that for his efforts at poetry he wants a man who is handsome and sexy and possessing a perfect set of teeth like his sonnet. We quietly approve of it. Do we not all hanker for that physical perfection or beauty in men? But we are disturbed next when we read about the next lines detailing his choice for a man who is obedient, someone who can be ordered around with a mere look. Is the poet here then pointing to something darker within the hearts of gay men? Or is the poet merely giving voice to our own deeper insecurities as gays? Or is he truly exacting merely from the men the same toil he experienced in writing a sonnet? Then before we can give the matter further thought, the poet surprises us towards the end of his sonnet when he talks about the dreamed-of smile from a man with a perfect set of teeth, which he says would cause him to write more beautiful poems, which in turn, would help him “buy” more men. From the idea of poems being worthy of a trade for a man, the poet has, at this point, appropriated it a new value: the poems have become charms with which he could attract other men. Has the author just admitted and owned up to his own polygamous nature? Teodoro wrote the sixty-five poems in the collection from 1992 to 2001. If we are to do the math, for a period of nine years, the author wrote, on average, at least seven poems a year. Do we see consider that as prolific? Do we suppose, too, that Teodoro had “bought” at least the same number of men in a year? By any sexual standards, does that number already fall within promiscuity? And still the subsequent naughty question: Has he become prolific because he is promiscuous or has he become promiscuous because he’s prolific? Again, others may invoke here the mutual exclusivity of the author and the persona but I argue here that Teodoro’s poems are not dismembered things either. Any writing, after all, is imbued with the author’s heart, and here in this collection, it is definitely Teodoro’s heart that pulses bravely in all of his poems, and how marvelously so. But beyond pointing to the polygamous nature of the persona, the couplet in Teodoro’s sonnet, has provided the readers with the proper handle with which to approach the poems in the collection. Teodoro has, in fact, made the men his inspiration to write, his “muses” so to speak. His poems, in keeping with the very spirit of its collective title, have all been appropriately instigated by the arrival, sightings of, encounter with, sex with a man, or even the absence of a man.
Having released himself from the rigidity of the sonnet form, it is interesting to note that he opted for the free form and pinned his experiences of men in each poem.
And just what kind of men people Teodoro’s poems then? There is a man he names Erwin whom he calls “giliw” and “mahal” (“Kay Erwin na nasa Marina de Bay Ngayon”), and his “kasing-kasing” hidden from the rest of prying eyes by tall coconut trees and blossoming hibiscus (“Nang Tanungin Ako ng Isang Kaibigan Kung Ano’ng Meron sa Roxas, Palawan na Kailangan Kong Balikan”), a man whose memory he likens to a snake (“Ahas”), the seven naked men he chanced upon a forest (“Pitong Hubo’t Hubad na Lalaki Isang Biyernes Santo”), a Muslim lover (“Kay Alsahd, ang Muslim Kong Mangingibig”), a casual acquaintance (“Sa Lalaking Nakasayaw ko sa Spice Bar”), and even a Richard Gomez look-alike (“Para sa Isang Kamukha ni Richard Gomez”), among many other men from whom the author was able to distill a range of emotions for his poems.
We appreciate his self-deprecating humor in “Paghahanap kay Tarzan sa Kagubatan ng Palawan:” (In Search of Tarzan in the Forests of Palawan) “Gusto ko kapag nag-date kami / Ay bigla niya na lamang akong / Hahablutin sa kamay / Habang naglalakad ako / Sa ilog na mabato.” (I would like that if we go out / He would immediately / Grab my hand / While I am walking / In a pebbled-strewn river.) Teodoro then masterfully finishes it up with the following lines: “Pero, teka / Kailangan ko pala munang magpapayat / Dahil baka hindi makakaya ng mga baging sa gubat / Ang aking bigat.” (But wait, / I needed to become thin first / As the vines may not be able to hold / My weight.) He displays the same verbal verve in the poem “May Matris na Ako:” “May matris na ako / Pagkagising ko kaninang umaga…/ Ipahipo ko kaya / Itong bwisit na puson / Sa unang lalaking / Makakasalubong ko / Sa daan? / Kaya lang baka singilin ako / Ng limang daan, / Ang pitaka ko ngayo’y / Walang laman.” (I now have a womb / When I woke up earlier this morning…/ What if I let it be touched / This irritating belly / By the first man / I’ll encounter / In the street? / But what if he asks for money / For five hundred pesos / My wallet only now / Contains nothing.) In an innocently-titled poem “Meryendang Siopao at Coke,” the readers encounter the following concluding lines: “Naalala ko bigla / ang mga lalaking kumakain sa akin / at kinakain ko rin.” (I suddenly remembered / the men who eat me / and them whom I eat, too.)
Teodoro’s eroticism in the poem “Kung Paano Kinakain ang Sankis” also earns our nod. Naghihintay itong aking balatan / upang mantsahan ng kulay ng balat nito / ang dulo ng aking mga kuko, / Gusto rin nito akong palawayin / sa amoy nitong tamis-asim. / Pero hindi ako patutukso. / Hihipuin ko lamang ito ng tingin. / Hinding-hindi ko ito babalatan / at kakainin hangga’t di ka dumating.” (It waits to be peeled by me / for the color of its skin to stain / the edges of my nails, / It also wants me to salivate / for its sour-sweet smell. / But I will not be tempted. / I will only touch it with my stare. / I will never ever peel it / nor eat it not until you arrive.)
On the other hand, his realizations as a gay person finds its level in the poem “Tatlong Babaylan ng Pag-ibig:” “Kalaban ng Ating puso / Ang mga batas ng pamahalaan, simbahan, at lipunan. / Walang pangalan ang Ating pagsinta / Sapagkat marami ang kumokontra.” (Our hearts’ enemies / Are the laws of government, church, and society. / Our love has no name / Because many are against it.) Teodoro, too, finds an appropriate affinity with the story of the dama-de-noche flower: “ Parehong maalamat / Ang aming pinagmulan. / Pareho kaming diwata / Na isinumpa ng nainggit na bruha / At ikinulong sa katawan namin / Na walang bibig / Walang kamay / Para hingin / Ang iyong pag-ibig.” (We have the same / Legendary origins. / We are both fairies / Cursed by the envious witch / And trapped in our bodies / Without mouths / Without hands / To ask / For your love.) The author also gives vent to his own ambivalent feelings towards love and death in the poem “Pag-ibig at Kamatayan” concluding it with what I think is one of his more impressive endings in the collection: “Takot ako at sabik / na sila’y makasalubong. / Gusto ko kasing maunawaan ng aking mga kamay / ang wika ng mga umiibig at namamatay.” (I am afraid and desirous / to meet them / Because I want my hands to understand / the language of those who love and die.)
Having read all the poems, we flip through the first few pages once more and find the poem “Ang Makatang Mangingibig.” In this poem, it is as if we have finally come face to face with Teodoro in his writing desk saying “Yes, it is me.” And at that moment, it becomes clear to us what we have missed all along. And so we sit and listen to the author intently as he begins to read out his poem:
“Nagiging akin ka
Sa mga sandaling
Nagsusulat ako ng tula
Para sa ‘yo.
Itong paghigugma ko
Ng mga talinhaga.
Napapatula sa ritmo
Ng aking mga linya
Ang mga abyan
Na katulad kong
Mga bigo ring
Ng mga salita.
Sa kritika ng buhay
Ayaw ko sanang
Ang mga gutay-gutay kong
If poetry can indeed be used to buy men, then Teodoro deserves a country of men.